A group of astronomers has found the most distant and oldest quasar and supermassive black hole. Its presence at such an early stage in the history of the Universe challenges theories of black hole formation.
Nearly every galaxy has a supermassive black hole at its center, millions or billions of times the size of the Sun. While there is still much to be learned about these objects, many scientists believe they are critical to the formation and structure of galaxies. What’s more, some of these black holes are especially active, gathering stars, dust, and gas into glowing accretion disks that emit powerful radiation into space as they absorb matter around them. Such objects are called quasars – they are some of the most distant objects that astronomers can see. Scientists recently set a new record – he observed the farthest ever observed.
A team of researchers led by former UC Santa Barbara doctoral student Feige Van announced the discovery of J0313-1806, the most distant quasar discovered to date. The distant quasar, which appeared more than 13 billion years ago, is also the earliest discovered. This allows astronomers to understand the formation of massive galaxies in the early universe. The team’s findings were revealed at the January 2021 meeting of the American Astronomical Society and published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.
Quasars are the most energetic objects in the universe. They occur when gas in a superheated accretion disk around a supermassive black hole is pulled inward, scattering energy across the entire electromagnetic spectrum. This releases massive amounts of electromagnetic radiation, with the most massive samples easily dwarfing entire galaxies.
Quasar J0313-1806 is 13 billion light-years from Earth and appeared just 690 million years after the Big Bang. It is powered by the earliest known supermassive black hole, which, despite its early formation, still weighs more than 1.6 billion times the mass of the Sun. Object J0313-1806 dwarfs the present-day Milky Way 1,000 times.
The presence of such a massive black hole at such an early stage in the history of the Universe challenges theories of their formation. As lead author Feige Wang, a NASA researcher, explains, “Black holes created by the earliest massive stars could not have grown to this size in just a few hundred million years.”